We Can’t Help It If We’re from Florida: New Stories from a Sinking Peninsula is a collection of poems, essays and fiction by Florida writers. In different forms, with different names and taking different routes, many of the writers produce a similar result—darkness.
The book was named after a compilation album made by five punk bands in back in 1983. Both the book and the album take a dim view of Florida. The punks were raging against the dying of the Florida sunshine. More than 30 years later, the book’s authors resemble forensic pathologists, examining the corpse of Florida.
Publisher Ryan Rivas believes the book can add to the legacy of Florida literature by “lifting the veil on what often gets covered by stereotypes and theme parks.” Author/editor Shane Hinton explained, “Florida is the butt of countless jokes in pop culture, and the title signals that the writers are in on the joke.”
But there is little humor to be found. The “uplifting” topics include murder, child abuse and a grandmother who commits suicide.
Fortunately, some of the writing is exquisite. The story Kiwano, written by Laura van den Berg, includes flashbacks, hallucinations and just plain weirdness. The awkwardness in the tale gives the story credibility—as the details seem too strange and specifically human to be fictional.
The story revolves around siblings and sleeping. The narrator, who suffers from insomnia, explains, “At night, I find a window and keep watch, blood burning; the trees have mouths and are trying to tell me things […] My husband tells me I have done things that are ‘deeply disturbing’—though I myself am in no position to judge the accuracy of this statement, seeing as I have not slept normally in 75 days.”
When not haunted by the specter of insomnia, the reader does well to recall that this is Florida, so hurricanes, handguns, hucksters and a number of sinkholes are certainly present.
Asha Dore’s The Lampshade is a particularly painful essay about her father’s demise; she manages to convey the fatalism, and the foolhardy hope, of Floridians:
(W)aiting for the hot Gulf water to carry the storms across their
Houses and bodies, waiting for the rain to flood them out or
the wind to knock off their roofs … They waited, knowing that
tornadoes could drop down through their kitchen ceiling,
knowing sinkholes could open underneath their bedrooms,
… They stayed knowing that a storm
She also reflects on the bittersweet reality of dodging a disaster:
The year Dad died, a hurricane was supposed to hit, but
then it didn’t … The hurricane … turned just enough to
pass my hometown, to flatten some other house, some
This essay isn’t just about the scenery and dangers of Florida. It is deeply personal and profoundly painful.
Michael J. Seidlinger’s narrator in Displacement dislikes the generic sameness of suburban Florida. “Everything’s green, planned out, cul de sac, roundabout, floral street names, the road itself … [W]herever this road takes me, it’ll all be the same.”
Here, the idea of staying in Florida is rejected, “That road goes in circles. It goes nowhere. I can’t get used to this. There’s no future here. I have so much to say. I’m young and anxious and worried and nobody. I’m nobody and I really just want a one-on-one with the world.”
Lyricist Neil Peart once diagnosed this affliction, “Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth, but the suburbs have not charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.”
There are a number of damaged men in the book. Some die, while others kill.
In John Henry Fleming’s story Rightness, the narrator provides background, “I’m the kind of person who knows for sure he really has no hope … and can’t admit it.” In a road-rage incident, he describes the person he confronts:
[T]he guy was a lot like me. He gave up long ago trying to pretend.
The fender bender was a gift. For once, he was totally sure he was
right about something, and he was going to have the pleasure of
expressing his rightness to whatever extent he saw fit because
when hope dries up, you take rightness over nothing.
Jacksonville-based Sohrab Homi Fracis’ All Right, Now, Cupid, includes a fired bank employee on a mission of vengeance. One character turns self-destructive, “I wanted the earth to crack. I wanted the mouth of hell to open wide and swallow me up” in Jeff Parker’s Major Disassociation on Crescent Lake. The anger and passion is reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk, “I wanted to breathe smoke.”
A reader can get lost in this book. The action, characters and drama are compelling. Some of the better writing includes characters only loosely in touch with their sanity. Unfortunately, some of the writing is indulgent; the fatalism in many stories is so common it’s almost predictable.
Despite its flaws, the book it worth reading, not just for the jarring prose but for the recognition Florida-based readers will feel. Those further afield might not perceive the locale, but the deep sentiments of darkness and rage may have a familiar echo.
Author Sohrab Homi Fracis signs copies of the book Jan. 20 at San Marco Bookstore; Feb. 17 at Chamblin’s Uptown. The book is available locally at Chamblin’s and The BookMark, Neptune Beach.